WASHINGTON — Tatiana Zaharchenko, an environmental lawyer from Ukraine, said yesterday that the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe's 1998 Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, better known as the Aarhus Convention, has had a significant impact on public access to environmental information in post-Soviet states.
The convention, which came into force in October 2001, "changed traditions. It changed habits. It changed mentalities of the governments," said Zaharchenko, a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Kennan Institute and a visiting scholar at the Environmental Law Institute.
The call for increased access to information and environmental awareness in post-Soviet states indicated "a longing … to find new voice, new face and new future on the breakage of an empire," said Zaharchenko. In a talk at the Wilson Center yesterday, Zaharchenko said that the explosion of a reactor in the nuclear power station in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986 was a key factor in the gradual and still ongoing transformation of former Soviet states into more open, environmentally accountable societies.
In 1988, environmental activists appealed for increased environmental awareness to end the Soviet tradition of secrecy, and the State Committee for Nature Protection of the U.S.S.R. was created. The collapse of the Soviet regime coincided with the historic adoption of the first environmental protection laws in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other countries, she said.
The convention, ratified in 1998 by European countries in the Danish town of Aarhus, provides a solid foundation for citizens' rights that were previously "hanging in the air," Zaharchenko said, noting that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan described the convention as a symbol of "environmental democracy."
While the former Soviet states are burdened with the tradition of secrecy that permeated the Soviet government and even now researchers must often be persistent when seeking access to environmental records, Zaharchenko said, governments of post-Soviet states have indicated a willingness to change and the Aarhus Convention could help these governments transform.
Countries such as the Netherlands, Italy and Denmark, as well as the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have aided in the implementation of the convention, said Zaharchenko, who acted as a consultant on behalf of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Croatia and Belgium to design projects for the convention.